How to Deal With Temptation During the Holidays

It’s important to strike a balance between gratitude, temptation and willpower this holiday season.

Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. | November 16, 2016

1. Despite our best intentions, we seem to run out of willpower during the holidays. Why does this happen?

Willpower depletion is a very real phenomenon. Many modern diets rely at least in part on the dieter’s willpower over an extended period, and that is just a losing game. Willpower is not a component of character, it’s simply a cognitive function. Research shows we have as little as 15 minutes of willpower at our disposal at any given time before it runs dry. That’s kind of shocking and scary, right?

It’s also really powerful to recognize that the root of an unhealthy relationship with food is NOT a result of willpower deficit, just like poor eating choices don’t stem from some kind of moral shortcoming. (Though I know it can sometimes feel that way when you’re in the struggle.)

The key is relying on a diet that expects there will be times when your brain runs out of willpower but works anyway. Assume there will be a lot of sugar and flour being offered to you during those weeks, and plan out and commit to what you will be eating and drinking at each occasion ahead of time. Don’t leave yourself to make decisions in the moment — when you’ve just struggled to get your kids in the car or been stuck in line at the mall for hours. That is a setup for your brain.   

The only thing you have to do at that party is let the “you” of earlier, the one who committed to not eating Christmas wreath-shaped cookies, be in charge. You made a good plan. Go on autopilot and follow it.  

2. How can we resist all those unneeded calories that come flying at us in December?

The best weapons are eating regular meals and planning ahead. When regular meals become part of the scaffolding of your life, it really helps take the burden off of willpower. Once you set up a schedule of eating three meals a day at regular mealtimes, not only does eating the right things become automatic but also passing up the wrong things in between also becomes automatic. Once eating the things you want to be eating to lose or maintain your weight is automatic, you’re not making choices anymore.

As for advanced planning, my No. 1 recommendation is to buy a little journal and keep it by the fridge with a pen. After dinner each night, open it up and write down exactly what you’re going to eat the next day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also, note whether you’ll be out and about for any of those meals and prepack your food accordingly. As mentioned above, developing this habit of planning will help you avoid falling into the “willpower gap.” It means you will no longer be making food choices at the times of day when your willpower is depleted.  

3. How can we avoid temptations?

Ritual helps the brain to reset. The brain thrives on structure, so as you train your brain to get into a food routine, willpower is called on less and less. Cravings are simply the internal mechanisms of a brain hijacked by sugar and flour. Over time, the brain heals itself and those cravings dramatically subside.  

In the meantime, while we’re waiting for our brains to heal, there are five scientifically proven behaviors that, in the moment, will replenish willpower and help us triumph over temptation:  

  1. social support
  2. prayer
  3. meditation
  4. gratitude
  5. service

When you’re at a holiday party and the dessert table is calling you, step outside for five minutes and call or text a friend. Say a quick prayer. Find a quiet room (the bathroom will work) and breathe deeply for a couple of minutes. Whip out your smartphone and write a quick list of five things you’re grateful for. Then come back to the party, scope out the room, and find someone who really looks like they could use a companion. Go ask him or her what they do for fun. Try it. It works.

4. Sometimes it feels like we wake up January 1 with five mystery pounds and we don’t know what happened — how can we become more aware of our actions in regard to food?

Awareness starts through understanding the building blocks of how food and our bodies work. For example, there isn’t just one type of hunger, there are many: real hunger, insatiable hunger and overpowering cravings.

Real hunger is your body’s natural response to needing fuel. It’s the hunger we associate with any kind of eating we do — no matter what the reason.

Insatiable hunger is the kind that keeps us going back for seconds or thirds, even when we’ve eaten a sufficient amount. Insatiable hunger has side effects like lethargy and apathy that are real physical responses you can watch out for. You won’t get tired after eating a plate of healthy food. In fact, you might want to take a brisk walk. But if you graze or eat more than is needed, you’ll end up watching TV, not because your favorite program is on but because you actually don’t feel like moving.

Overpowering cravings have even more noticeable signs and should be thought of like an addiction. Are you driving out of your way to get a food that is your fix? Did you irrationally let good food in the fridge spoil because you just had to have something else last night? Know the signs and know the differences between what you are experiencing and what is holding you back.

5. This time of year there is an emphasis on gratitude. How does gratitude influence willpower and temptation?

As stated above, consciously thinking about what we’re grateful for is one of five actions that restore and replenish willpower, so it’s a super helpful holiday party tool for our weight-loss or weight-maintenance toolkit.

Beyond that, gratitude eases temptation in three noticeable ways. First, establishing the ritual of giving thanks before eating creates a stronger routine for regular meal consumption. When we eat meals at consistent times, it lengthens the body’s fasting window — training the body to shed fat, recycle damaged cell parts and repair neurons while it’s not processing food. Second, giving thanks diverts the burden from willpower to thankfulness, giving the brain something else to think about. Last, and most important, giving thanks helps us focus on what we have, not what we want. It makes us more mindful, which leads to better decision-making.

Instead of letting go of your goals for your body and your life during this time, recognize that the magic of the holidays doesn’t lie in overconsumption and indulgence, it lies in thankfulness and connection.

About the Author

Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D.

Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is a psychology professor, a brain and cognitive scientist, and an expert in the psychology of eating. She is president of the Institute for Sustainable Weight Loss and CEO of Bright Line Eating Solutions, a company dedicated to sharing the psychology and neurology of sustainable weight loss and helping people achieve it.